WASHINGTON (CNN) – The Supreme Court has struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that same-sex spouses legally married in a state may receive federal benefits.
The case examines whether the federal government can deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry. At issue is whether DOMA violates equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment's due process clause as applied to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their states.
The key plaintiff is Edith “Edie” Windsor, 84, who married fellow New York resident Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007, about 40 years into their relationship. By the time Spyer died in 2009, New York courts recognized same-sex marriages performed in other countries. But the federal government didn’t recognize Windsor’s same-sex marriage, and she was forced to assume an estate tax bill much larger than those that other married couples would have to pay. So, Windsor sued the federal government.
A federal appeals court last year ruled in Windsor’s favor, saying DOMA violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
The Supreme Court also dismissed an appeal over same-sex marriage on jurisdictional grounds, ruling Wednesday private parties do not have “standing” to defend California’s voter-approved ballot measure barring gay and lesbians couples from state-sanctioned wedlock.
This ruling clears the way for same-sex marriages in California to resume.
The 5-4 decision avoids, for now, a sweeping conclusion on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutionally-protected “equal protection” right that would apply to all states.
At issue was whether the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law prevents states from defining marriage, and whether a state can revoke same-sex marriage through referendum once it already has been recognized.
California voters approved the measure in 2008 with 52% of the vote shortly after the state Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages are legal. The measure put gay and lesbian marriages on hold in the state, but a federal appeals court later rule Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
The measure’s supporters then asked the Supreme Court to preserve the will of the voters.
“We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” said Chief Justice John Roberts.
The justices chose instead to throw the case back to the lower federal courts, leaving uncertain when, and even where same-sex marriages could resume in the state.
It was act two in a closely-watched pair of high court appeals over state and federal laws and the limits of recognizing the ability of gay and lesbian couples to wed. The outcome of the rulings give same-sex couples much to be encouraged.
But the opinion also has the effect of throwing the debate back to the political branches of government, and perhaps to voters themselves, who may be poised to reverse course and approve same-sex marriage next year in California, continuing a nationwide trend.
The Madison County Democrats are delighted with the Supreme Court decisions.
“After the shameful ruling on Voting Rights yesterday, the Supreme Court did the right thing today by making DOMA unconstitutional. People need to understand the difference between marriage as a civil right and holy matrimony as a religious tradition. Today was a victory for all people who fight for civil rights and equality,” Madison County Democratic Chair, Clete Wetli, remarked.
Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said, “I am disappointed to learn that SCOTUS has struck down DOMA and will now require that federal benefits be extended to homosexual couples. This is an affront to the Christian principles that this nation was founded on. The federal government is hijacking marriage, a uniquely religious institution, and they must be stopped.”
Armistead went on to say,” “Whether by a constitutional amendment or other means, US taxpayers should not be forced by their government to reward those who choose to engage in activity that had been banned in 35 states. This is a nation founded on Christian values and the Bible is very clear on marriage – one man and one woman. Alabama’s state law banning gay marriage will prevent these benefits from being extended in Alabama, but our tax dollars will still go to support a lifestyle that we fundamentally disagree with”